“The most seriously damaging chasm is that which puts humans in a position outside of and in some senses superior to the natural world. ”
From an expired blog about the rare subject of ecological humanities, by a group of scholars at the Australian National University. (Thank you Google Cache) Apparently one of the authors has moved to University of New South Wales and publishes the journal Environmental Humanities:
We are a group of scholars who have been meeting regularly over the past few years. Most of us have had a connection with the Australian National University. In 2001 Deborah Bird Rose convened a group of leading scholars to discuss the role of the humanities in ecological and environmental thought in the 21st century. Together, Libby Robin, Val Plumwood and Deborah Rose began to form the group that is leading the ecological humanities in Australia. Our highlights include an on-line publication, our own separate publications, an on-going series of intellectual events, and many vivid and challenging conversations amongst ourselves, with colleagues from the bush, and with colleagues from around the world, some of whom we have been able to host at the ANU.Philosopher Val Plumwood articulated two necessary and vital projects that face us today: to re-situate humans within ecological systems, and to re-situate non-humans in ethical terms. Importantly, Indigenous people in many parts of the world, and most certainly in Australia, have for millennia held humans within ecological systems and practice an ethic of connectivity that includes sentient beings of all kinds, animal, vegetable and mineral. Cross-cultural dialogue is one of the most important arenas for enhancing contemporary western knowledge.The ecological humanities is a cross-paradigm, cross-cultural endeavour dedicated to bridging the great chasms of knowledge that have arisen during the course of the west’s long-term commitment to extreme binaries. The most seriously damaging chasm is that which puts humans in a position outside of and in some senses superior to the natural world. (my bold) Along with this chasm, there is an accompanying binary which attributes all mind in humanity and would see the rest of the universe as effectively mindless. Erroneous understanding of our situation on earth, and desensitising understandings of the capacity of living beings empathetically to respond to each other, are rendered more intractable by the fact that within the academic world, another major chasm exists – that between the humanities and the natural sciences.
Disciplines within the humanities traditionally work with knowledge founded in subject-subject encounters, and with the idea that humans are the only beings who were possessed of a subjectivity that could be encountered. The humanities have worked with the big questions of what it means to be human, but answers necessarily were limited by the fact that humanity was not thought to be part of the natural world. The sciences traditionally have constituted themselves through objective analysis of creatures and systems that are expressively inert. Only recently has the concept of dialogue (as subject-subject encounter) been taken seriously within science. Perhaps the most succinct expression of this situation is that of Ilya Prigogine who famously wrote: ‘I have always considered science to be a dialogue with nature.’
The edge where sciences and humanities rub against each other is energised around dialogue and connectivity. The ecological humanities aims to carry knowledge and critical analysis in numerous directions, facilitating and encouraging dialogue between sciences and humanities, and between experts in western and other knowledge systems, and facilitating and encouraging a concept of the human as in connection with the world – embedded, embodied, and in dialogue. In working back and forth across traditional barriers to knowledge, we are confident that new knowledge forms will arise. We are extremely mindful of the need for new knowledge in the face of the urgency of anthropogenic catastrophes, including global climate change, extinctions, and loss of ecosystem integrity and productivity.
If ‘we have never been human’, in Donna Haraway’s exciting terms, we have nevertheless from time to time managed to be humane, as Patrick Curry reminds us. To be humane is to open ourselves to the world around us in the certainty that we can experience solidarity and sympathy. And if human nature itself is an interspecies relationship, as Anna Tsing tells us, our becoming human is situated within a world of ‘nature’ which is ‘discursively structured, saturated with messages and stories, and patterned throughout’ (Curry).
- Val Plumwood on ‘two tasks’ Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason, 2002, London: Routledge, p. 8.
- Ilya Prigogine, The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos, and the New Laws of Nature, New York: The Free Press, 1997, p 57
- Donna Haraway, When Species Meet, 2007, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Anna Tsing (In press), ‘Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species’. In Thinking with Donna Haraway, edited by S. Ghamari-Tabrizi.
- Patrick Curry ‘Nature Post-Nature’ in New Formations, 64 (Earthographies), Spring 2008, 51-64.
A Brief History Deborah Rose convened the first Ecological Humanities Working Group in 2001 at the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies (now the Fenner School) of the Australian National University. Those who participated in the day of intense discussion included Tom Griffiths, Freya Mathews, Stephen Muecke, Kate Rigby, Libby Robin, Deborah Rose, Tim Rowse and Bob Wasson, assisted by George Main and with apologies from Val Plumwood. The group reconvened in 2002 with Gay Hawkins sitting in for Stephen Muecke. In both meetings the participants articulated the existence of a huge critical blind spot in contemporary thought. This blind spot was the place where ecological science and the humanities intersect. The urgency of gaining analytic, academic and public purchase on this intersection arises from the Anthropocene, this era in which the impact of humanity on earth systems has gained the force of a geological era.One aspect of the blind spot was the lack of a dedicated journal. Following from these two meetings, Libby Robin and Deborah Rose initiated the Ecological Humanities section within the Australian Humanities Review. The journal is Australia’s premiere on-line humanities publication (ERA rank A), and has the further merit of being freely available through the internet. We launched the new journal section with an invitation (Rose and Robin 2004) to engage with the Ecological Humanities. A related initiative was to bring into the science community the fact that the humanities has been the missing link in environmental discourse (Fischer et al. 2007).
Another aspect of the blind spot was the absence of a clear and concise statement of what the ecological humanities had to offer in this current era of rapid social and ecological change. Our colleague Val Plumwood had outlined two major tasks before us at this time and these have become guiding themes for much of our work (2002: 8-10). The first is to re-situate the human in ecological terms, and the second is to re-situate the non-human in ethical terms, and thus is to start to overcome the idea that humans are outside of nature. This is the first step toward overcoming a humanities worldview that defines the human without reference to the living world. The second task – to resituate the non-human in ethical terms –addresses the idea that the non-human world is devoid of meaning, values, and ethics. It is a first step toward overcoming a Cartesian worldview that defines the natural world as morally inert.
Val Plumwood’s untimely death in 2007 prompted us to develop a more formal statement of ourselves as a group, and to start a rhizomatic process by which we would continue to engage with the urgent issues of our day. This website is one result, along with the many events and publications documented here. We have continued to gather at local and national levels on a regular basis, with an Ecological Humanities Summit Symposium at Macquarie University (July, 2009) dedicated to the theme ‘Writing at the End of the World? A Gathering to Reimagine Our Contributions in this Rapidly Changing World’.
Most of our teaching work has focussed on PhD students, but recently the first undergraduate unit in the Ecological Humanities was launched. Written and taught by Deborah Rose at Macquarie University in 2010, the unit has proved to be extremely popular – student enrolment indicates a craving for this integrative, committed, and engaged approach to the profoundly disturbing issues we all face today.
In a recent article published in England, philosopher Patrick Curry acknowledges the importance of our group’s intellectual framework. He analyses the case for the significance of the term ‘ecological humanities’, offering three main merits of the term:
- First – to remind us of our freedom (as an ideal) from servitude to scientism
- Second – to remind us that in the plural humanities contrasts with monism and helps us hold to multiplicities of relations, perspectives, realities
- Third – as we are human, to encourage us to recognise the hermeneutic reflexivity of such studies, whilst at the same time, with the term ecological, reminding us of the intelligence, subjectivity and agency of nonhuman, or more-than-human, life.
Taken together, these reasons further remind us of the imperative ‘that we co-exist with a multitude of others, both human and nonhuman who are our existential equals…’ (2010: 9-10, online copy)Relations between humans and nonhumans have been central to the Ecological Humanities from the outset. In 2001 and 2002 Deborah Rose convened ‘Interspecies Workshops’ at the ANU. The focus there and in continuing research is on relations between humans and other animals and aims to undermine the boundaries that have been deployed to hold humans separate from other animals. Other research has taken up human-water and human-plant relations, while yet other research starts from the perspective of place and undertakes an inclusive site-specific analysis. Environmental history and the history of science have been significant domains within our research agenda. The research is on-going, open-ended, and in conversation with scholars in a range of organisations and disciplines (see affiliates).For further information please also see: Tom Griffiths (2007) “The Humanities and an Environmentally Sustainable Australia“, Australian Humanities Review, vol. 43.
- Curry, P. 2010. From Ecocriticism to Ecohumanities: An Essay-Review of Mark Dickinson and Clare Goulet (eds), Lyric Ecology: 25 Meditations on the work of Jan Zwicky (Toronto: Cormorant Books, 2010). Green Letters 13:95-100.
- Fischer, J., A. D. Manning, W. Steffen, D. B. Rose, K. Daniell, A. Felton, S. Garnett, B. Gilna, R. Heinsohn, D. Lindenmayer, B. MacDonald, F. Mills, B. Newell, J. Reid, L. Robin, K. Sherren, and A. Wade. 2007. Mind the Sustainability Gap. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 22.
- Plumwood, V. 2002. Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. London: Routledge.
- Rose, D., and L. Robin. 2004. The Ecological Humanities in Action: An Invitation. Australian Humanities Review 31-32.